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Manual Scavenging in India – Despite being illegal why manual scavenging exists in India?

Manual Scavenging in India – Despite being illegal why manual scavenging exists in India?


  • GS 2 || Governance & Social Justice || Vulnerable Sections || Safai Karamcharis

Why in the news?

Recently the Karnataka Government passed an order which seeks to punish the civil contractors severely if they found to violate the manual scavenging provisions.

Manual scavenging in India:

  • Manual scavenging is the practice of removing human excrement from toilets, septic tanks or sewers by hand. The practice of manual scavenging has accursed Indian society since time immemorial.
  • Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in India.
  • This practice is linked to India’s caste system where the so-called low castes are expected to perform this job.
  • Presently, according to the official data, more than 40,000 manual scavengers are working across the country. This is a significantly decreased number from 770,338 in 2008.
  • The government has been taking measures to prevent the manual scavenging but the progress made is less than satisfactory.
  • As per the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) data, 808 manual scavengers have died between 2013 and 2020 while cleaning septic tanks.
  • Also, the same data shows that 29,923 people are engaged in manual scavenging in Uttar Pradesh, making it the highest in any State in India.
  • In addition, many advocacy groups have raised concern over the authenticity of this data, claiming that the actual number would be much more.
  • In a well recognised documentary movie, “The Cost of Cleanliness – Documentary on Deaths of Manual Scavengers in India”, the plight of the manual scavengers were shown in a heart breaking manner.
  • This documentary clearly showed the manual scavenging even though banned by the law is still prevailing in India on a bigger scale.

Challenges faced by the Manual Scavengers:

  • Ignorance of health and dignity: The manual scavengers are often not provided enough life saving equipment which causes their lives often during the process. They are also seen as the untouchables and unsanitary group of people in the society.
  • Hereditary occupation: The practice of manual scavenging is seen as hereditary occupation in the society and hence children of manual scavengers are also drawn in the practice.
  • Inequity and social exclusion: The manual scavenging causes social inequality and exclusion. The families of manual scavengers are denied access to places of worship, public sources of water. They are excluded from cultural events etc.

Reasons of continue manual scavenging in India:

  1. Existence of unsanitary latrines: The majority of latrines in India are unsanitary and require to be cleaned manually by humans. The majority of such unsanitary latrines are dry latrines that don’t use water.
  2. Poor enforcement of prohibitory laws: The prohibitory laws on the practice of manual scavenging are poorly enforced. Sometimes even the government agencies such as Municipalities are found to be employing manual scavengers for sanitation purposes.
  3. Social reasons: The manual scavenging is often linked with particular caste groups and it is made hereditary in India. This causes perpetual manual scavenging.
  4. Urbanisation: The rapid rate of urbanisation has also helped proliferation of manual scavenging.
  5. Poor awareness: The lack of awareness among the people about legal rights and the provisions of laws have caused perpetual inhumane practice.
  6. Lack of bargaining powers: The groups representing interests of manual scavengers are most vulnerable and do not possess enough bargaining powers. They are the most neglected groups.

Legislative framework to remove Manual scavenging

  • Prior to 1993, India did not have any dedicated law for prevention of manual scavenging.
  • In 1989, the Prevention of Atrocities Act was enacted and it became an integrated guard for sanitation workers as more than 90% people employed as manual scavengers belonged to the Scheduled Caste.
  • This became an important landmark to free manual scavengers from designated traditional occupations.
  • India began outlawing the employment of manual scavengers in 1993, expanding the law in 2013.
  • The Parliament had enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The Act was severely criticised for being biased against the interests of manual scavengers.
  • In 2013, the Parliament enacted Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 which succeeded the earlier Act.

Salient provisions:

  • Listing of offences and provisions of penalties: The Act comprehensively enlists the offences in manual scavenging and related penalties.
  • Emphasis on saving lives: Mechanised cleaning of septic tanks is the prescribed norm. When human intervention is unavoidable, safety gear is mandatory.
  • Nature of the offences: Offences have been made non -bailable and cognizable under the said Act.
  • Committee for Monitoring or Vigilance: The Act also strengthened the statutory status to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) for monitoring of the implementation of the Act and present a report. NCSK is a statutory body established under National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993.
  • Time-bound rehabilitation and compensation: The Act also makes provisions for Manual Scavenger survey to be carried out within a time-frame system. Manual Scavengers thorough and complete rehabilitation with a time-bound system.
  • Implementing agencies: The Act outlines that the District Magistrate and the local authority shall be the implementing authorities.

Other measures:

  • Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS): It was introduced in 2007 with the aim to rehabilitate remaining manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations, in a time-bound manner.
    • The responsibility of rehabilitation of the identified manual scavengers is given to the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation which was established to safeguard the interests and rights of Safai Karamcharis .
  • Swachh Bharat Mission : The SBM focussed on the conversion of insanitary latrines into sanitary latrines.
  • Scholarships programmes for children of Manual scavengers: The central government has also launched a Pre secondary education Scholarship to the Children of those engaged in occupations involving cleaning and prone to health hazards. Under this, children of manual scavengers are provided scholarships. It is being implemented by the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment.
  • Technology Hackathon challenge: The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has also launched a ‘technology hackathon challenge” with an aim of eliminating human entry into septic tanks and drains for cleaning. Recently, a robot called ‘Bandicoot’ was also developed by Kerala engineers to clean manholes.
  • Encouragement to NGOs: The government has also been encouraging NGOs to take up the measures to advance the interests of the manual scavengers. Several NGOs such as Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, Association for Rural and Urban Needy (ARUN), etc. are very active in this field. Some individuals, such as Bezwada Wilson who is an Indian activist and one of the founders and National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, the construction, operation and employment of manual scavengers which has been illegal in India since 1993.
  • Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge was launched in 2020. The challenge aims to completely mechanise all septic and sewage tank cleaning operations in 243 cities across India, by April 30, 2021.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and its impacts on Manual Scavenging:

  • Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the government constructed approximately 1,000 lakh toilets since 2014
  • The constructed toilets are connected either to twin pits, septic tanks with soak pits, single pits or are connected to sewerage lines.
  • National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2017-18 estimated that 13 per cent of the toilets constructed had twin pits, while 38 per cent were equipped with septic tanks with soak pits and 20 per cent had single pits.
  • While the twin pit variety does not require human handling of faecal matter, the other two varieties require manual or mechanical extraction of faecal matter after a period of time.
  • Given the abundance of septic tanks with soak pit and single pit varieties of toilets and the low availability of suction pumps at the village level for mechanical extraction, it is obvious that most of these toilets in rural areas would be cleaned manually.

Judicial Interventions:

  • Reaveen Rashtrapal, I.R.S (Retd.) v.s. Chief Officer, Kadi Municipality and Ors: After upholding the fundamental right to health according to Article 21, the Court delivered many directions for the upliftment and improvement of sewerage workers to the authorities in question.
  • Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors. v.s. Union of India: In this landmark judgement, it was directed by the Supreme Court that:
  1. Rehabilitation of the persons mentioned as manual scavengers in the final list under Section 11 and 12 of the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 shall be done according to the provisions laid down in Part IV of the said Act.
  2. To stop the practice as well as tradition of manual scavenging, to remove and prevent this inhumane activity to prevail in future generations.
  3. According to the principle of justice and transformation, the rehabilitation of the manual scavengers must be based.
  4. Orders the State Govt. and the UT’s to completely implement the provision mentioned the said Act.
  5. Orders the State Govt. and the UT’s to take necessary actions against the offenders and the violators of the Act.

Way ahead:

The manual scavenging practice is a stigma upon society in the 21st century. It has to be stopped completely. In addition, there is an urgent need to ensure discrimination-free, secure and alternate livelihoods by providing skill development and livelihood training to people practicing manual scavenging.  There is also a need to create community awareness and sensitisation of local administration in order to provide a favourable environment for the implementation of law and schemes. The leadership in the community can be strengthened to better voice their problems in the social, economic and political circles.

Model Mains Question:

  1. In the backdrop of increasing urbanisation, discuss the manual scavenging problems. Why despite the law, the inhumane practice of manual scavenging persists in India?